Bruce Springsteen says he won’t perform for North Carolina, as long as the state upholds its recently passed law regarding gender and public restrooms. Springsteen is doing what millions of Americans are taught, in classrooms and in culture, to do: Standing up for his conscience, and drawing lines accordingly. But in our era, the question becomes: If this is counted to Springsteen as righteousness, why is it counted as sin to North Carolina?
That’s the kind of morally confused age we live in. In the 1980s, Allan Bloom could write in The Closing of the American Mind that nearly all American college students had one thing in common: A (professed, at least) belief in relativism. Bloom was prophetic and prescient in his time. But is his observation still true today?
There’s reason to doubt it. There’s reason to believe, as several commentators are now saying, that relativism has been weighed in the balance by the millennials and found wanting. Postmodernism’s tantalizing promise of the end of metanarrative and ethical absolutes has tripped over the foot of “academic justice,” Obergefell vs Hodges, and transgender restrooms. What we see in American culture today is not the reign of “Just do you,” but “Just go along with it.” Following your heart is old and busted; being on the right side of history is the new hotness.
G.K. Chesterton observed the difference between two kinds of worldview. The first worldview places great confidence in truth but is skeptical of oneself. Belief in transcendent realities is solid, but humanity’s inherent ability, or even desire, to seek them out is suspect. The second worldview does precisely the opposite: It places great confidence in human abilities, but is wary and suspicious of anything claiming to be truth.
On the surface, it looks like our contemporary culture is the embodiment of the second option. But I actually think that the spirit of our current age is less pure than that. What the Springsteen/North Carolina example shows us is that our culture is actually trying to escape the spiritual and intellectual emptiness of worldview #2 by combining it, in a sort of hideous moral alchemy, with worldview #1. The result is what you might call a secular religion, an indefatigable belief in absolutes that are in turn defined wholly in terms of human instincts and cravings. Those who violate the religion–those who question the inerrancy of human autonomy and progress–are the heretics, who must be quarantined and kept at bay.
The idea in question has been called “New Morality,” and I think that’s a helpful way of understanding the seemingly contradictory cultural trends at work now. The sexual revolution was never amoral; many of its fruits are immoral, of course, but at its core was always a moral center as rigid as that of the religionists it appeared to so deftly defy. By saying that it couldn’t define “person” in Roe v Wade, for example, the Supreme Court was actually defining it, the same way that separate-but-equal did in fact define personhood and citizenship by not defining it. Thus, “safe, legal, and rare” has lost its usefulness for the abortion lobby, which now prefers to talk about the “absolute good” of abortion and the sinister “anitchoice tactic” of humanizing the fetus. You can see the pattern: The language of choice and freedom has morphed into the language of obligation and necessity.
So the language of the culture has changed. Francis Schaeffer was right when he said that all Christians are missionaries to foreign-speaking lands, and so must learn to understand the language of culture in order to speak truth to it. What’s important for Christians to learn now is that the question of relativistic postmodernism was, “What does your conscience look like?” But the question of New Morality is, “What’s your conscience worth?”
The last generation had to insist that the neutering of absolute truth–the “gagging of God,” as D.A. Carson put it–was at odds with the Christian gospel. We had to articulate our religious DNA to a culture that was being taught at every turn that every god came from the same family tree. But now the conversation is changed. Our task now is to show that our un-gagged God cannot be bought off with promises of the “right side of history” and the approbation of our descendants. We must show our beliefs in more than theological argument but in practical acts of rebellion against the cultural consensus.
Whenever freedom of conscience is threatened by the ambient culture, two things inevitably happen. First, pressure will be applied to those who dissent to either recant or to accept their contagion and shrink back to the smallest corners of the public square. The second thing that happens is that sometimes, this pressure works. So we see memes like “Bake for Them Two,” an attempt to end-around, using religious jargon, the question of conscience and so be at peace once again with the spirit of the age. On the other hand, we also see angry, hand-wringing dissenters, for whom the pressures of the surrounding culture are causing them to forget who they are and where they are headed. Both options are capitulations, and both betray the value of our testimony.
Only a conscience worth something can point out when false gods fail to deliver the fire they promise. Only a conscience worth something can lose admission to Ph.D. programs but stand athwart culture yelling, “Stop!” And only a conscience worth something can carry a gospel that is the power of salvation to everyone who believes.
What’s your conscience worth?